Katrina and the Wave: Lessons on Disaster Training

Hal Leftwich knew they were in trouble the moment the wave of water came across the parking lot and poured into the hospital’s first floor. They had followed their disaster plan—securing the building, transferring patients out and moving the remaining patients to the main floor of Hancock Medical Center to get them away from the windows on the upper floors. They were ready.

But Hurricane Katrina took an unexpected turn and bore down on the Mississippi coast without pity. The hospital—with about 80 staff and 34 patients still in place—was right in its path.

Leftwich, who earned his Master of Health Services Administration in 1980, was the CEO at the time. It was his job to protect the hospital, the patients and the staff. He was grateful they’d practiced their disaster preparedness drills that summer of 2005, but he had no idea just how valuable that training would be in the hours and days to come.

Nothing teaches a lesson better than reality, which is why Sr. Nancy Linenkugel, director of the Health Services Administration department, started the Health Care in Practice program in 2011. Since then, 10 health-care professionals have presented their real-life stories and experiences, one each semester, to students across the whole range of health-care professions at Xavier.

 My message to students is you’ll be faced with things in your career you never expected, and you’ll be asked to take on roles using a lot of training from grad school that you think you’ll think never use.

Leftwich came back to Xavier to present his riveting story about surviving Katrina in September. “My message to students is you’ll be faced with things in your career you never expected, and you’ll be asked to take on roles using a lot of training from grad school that you think you’ll think never use,” he says.

He told the students how the 32-foot wall of water that hit Bay St. Louis forced them to change plans and quickly move the patients out of the flooded first floor and back upstairs, using sheets as slings to carry them when the elevators went out.

He told how everyone suffered in the humid August heat. There was no air conditioning, and in the days after the storm, they moved the remaining patients from one side of the building to the other to keep them in the shade, their O2 lines draped out the windows. There was so much water—on the main floor, in the parking lot—that staff could see fish and turtles swimming by through the hospital’s large plate glass windows. For weeks, Leftwich and some of his staff slept on air mattresses outside.

In the end, the hospital suffered $33 million in damages but reopened with temporary repairs in October 2005. It cost over $40 million to rebuild. But the most important outcome, he says, is that no one died at his hospital.

“We took the drills seriously, but you just never know when you’ll be called into service in response to something that you do not normally do, and hopefully you respond to it well,” he says.

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